Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle: Nintendo & The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

Fierce and bitter wars were fought in the playgrounds of the 1990s. They were secretive conflicts, pitting friend against friend in brutal opposition, even as the teachers looked on in disinterest. I’m not talking about marbles or King of the Hill or whatever – I’m talking about the Console Wars, and any child of my generation will remember them, and count their scars.

When many of us were young, we couldn’t afford to buy video game systems ourselves. This meant relying on Mom and Dad (or sometimes Santa) to deliver these incredible imagination machines to our living rooms – but they came bundled with a decision of deadly import. Multiple consoles (and iPads and phones and laptops and any number of electronic ephemera) might be common today, but in those halcyon days it was always, “Which one do you want – a Nintendo, or a Sega?” You would agonize over the decision, weighing Super Mario against Sonic the Hedgehog, and when you finally chose and got your console it was your sworn and noble duty to justify and defend your choice as fervently as your grade-school psyche would allow. You would brook no pretenders to the throne: you picked the Sega Genesis, and it didn’t matter that Nintendo’s Zelda and Metroid and Kirby looked so fantastically fun – they were garbage games when compared to the ones you could play. These arguments were the ground zero of the Console Wars, which are still raging today – just visit any internet forum which pits the Xbox One against the Playstation 4 to witness true modern warfare.

When it came to me, I picked Nintendo, and I’ve been a loyalist ever since. Back then their games were fresh and creative, and totally unique – and nobody else could match them for sheer quality. Each subsequent game that was released opened our minds to new and exciting ways that games could be played. The present was fun, but the future was breathtakingly exciting. I was proud to sing their praises in the trenches of my schoolyard.

But, in what would seem an impossible turn to my adolescent mind, Nintendo has left me behind. They are no longer interested in catering to those in my generation who fought so viciously for their cause – we’ve now passed outside the nimbus of their core demographic, and they’re perfectly content to show us the door. And what’s more, their once-irrepressible design choices have come to a grinding halt. They found such heady success in the 90s, and seem to have decided not to fix what ain’t broke – they haven’t released any game under a new intellectual property since 2001. Their new first-party titles have circled an interminable drain, becoming a seemingly endless parade of rehashes, sequels, and remakes. There’s the odd exception, of course (see 2007’s Super Mario Galaxy), but Nintendo’s creative output now seems a mere shadow of its former glory.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds for the Nintendo 3DS handheld system (hereafter called “ALBW”) is called a “spiritual successor” to 1992’s The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past (“ALttP”), when it’s really just a blatant retread of the same material. Just like every other Zelda title in existence, you play as Link, a young and untested hero who teams up with the enigmatic Princess Zelda to defeat the evil lord Ganon. Link is equipped with a magical sword and you must traverse dungeons and collect items in order to progress. This is the basic formula that has carried the series through upwards of 20 games across three decades. I guess Nintendo saw a few James Bond movies and said, “Hey, what a great business model! We can do this too!”

As a result of this pedigree, ALBW is excellent and polished and completely, utterly boring, bereft of any true innovation and relying heavily on nostalgic references to old masterpieces. It is functionally identical to ALttP in almost every way, from the narrative and characters to the overworld you explore. True, in ALBW they introduce a new mechanic whereby Link can transform himself into a 2D painting in order to wobble along walls and access new areas. But I’m sorry – one new mechanic does not a new game make. A high degree of polish (new graphics, improved sound design, etc.) belies a fundamental lack of creativity. The design of ALBW smacks not only of laziness, but cynicism. And there’s really not much else to say about the game.

How can something be so simultaneously excellent and terrible? Nintendo has always considered themselves risk-takers, innovators, a company that moves against the flow. While their marketing decisions seem to support this, their library says otherwise. They have kept a tight lock on their kennel of IPs since the early 90s (Mario, Zelda, Metroid, Donkey Kong, etc.), and they seem to spend all their creative energy teaching these tired, woebegone old dogs some flashy new tricks, and re-branding them as fresh-faced puppies. They’re really just selling us the same crap over and over again, and we’re stupid enough to lap it up. I’m not the first to express these feelings. Many have trumpeted the same injustices, their very justified indignation falling on deaf ears. It’s the sad truth that profit is the hamster driving the Nintendo wheel.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds makes me sad. I’m sad because it’s an entirely forgettable entry in a series that used to represent risk, and innovation, and creativity. I’m sad because there’s a generation of children out there playing these “new” Zelda titles, blissfully unaware that it’s probably never going to get any better than it is now. And I’m sad that Nintendo – a company whose name used to inspire excitement and joy in me – has jilted me and my peers like a fickle paramour, so that now their name is bitter on my tongue. A company that makes video games (which, I remind you, are toys, precision-engineered to create fun) should maintain the satisfaction of their consumers as the ultimate priority. For Nintendo, fun is taking a backseat to profit, and I’m sorry, but I’m hanging up my helmet. I just don’t believe in the cause anymore.

Justin Cummings is a writer, blogger, playwright, and graduate of Queen's University's English Language & Literature program. He has been an avid gamer and industry commentator since he first fed a coin into a Donkey Kong machine. He is currently pursuing a career in games journalism and criticism in Toronto.

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